OTTAWA—For Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly, there is one tool that’s not only paved the way for, but sustained, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine: disinformation.
And she wants to position Canada as a leader in tackling misleading content online, starting with social media.
“Propaganda is not only happening in Russia, it’s happening in new virtual battlegrounds, which are our social media companies,” Joly said Friday in conversation with Janice Stein, founding director of the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs.
“So what Canada will be doing, and what I want to make sure that we push even more … is (that) social media companies need to do more to prevent propaganda, and to counter any forms of disinformation,” the minister added.
“They’re not technological companies, they’re content producers. And they have a responsibility and they have to step up to the plate.”
Russian disinformation throughout the invasion has taken many forms, from how Moscow has justified its aggression to its citizens, to how it has depicted Ukraine’s military response, to how it has reacted to international backlash and media coverage.
Just this week, an unconvincing yet unsettling deepfake video of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy appearing to yield to Russia was scrubbed from Facebook and YouTube. And on Friday, Western members of the United Nations Security Council accused Russia of sowing disinformation over claims — which have gained traction online — of U.S.-backed biological weapons labs in Ukraine.
Joly said she would have more to say on fighting disinformation and holding social media companies to account in the “coming weeks,” and said she has already had conversations with other G7 nations on the subject.
Marcus Kolga, an expert on Russian disinformation with the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, said he hoped to see Canada take action soon.
He said he had been monitoring the so-called Freedom Convoy in Ottawa for signs of foreign interference, and saw how the Kremlin-owned RT — formerly known as Russia Today — platformed extremists calling for the downfall of the Canadian government.
“Perhaps that made the government take notice that … they are trying to destabilize our democracy. They’re trying to subvert it,” Kolga said. “This brought it out publicly in a very stark way. And I think that was very jarring for them.”
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If this country wants to carve out a space for itself as a leader in tackling disinformation, there are a suite of existing initiatives it can draw upon, he said.
One is the European Union’s East StratCom TaskForce, which specifically targets Russian disinformation campaigns. Another is European Centre of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats, a Helsinki-based hub that also looks at combating misleading information.
“If Canada can play a role in bringing together all of these efforts … sort of like a NATO for disinformation and inflammation and cognitive warfare, then that’s something that I think that would be most welcome, and is critically needed at this moment,” Kolga said.
The Canadian government has already taken several steps to tighten its grip on Russian disinformation since the invasion of Ukraine began.
The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission on Wednesday removed RT, the Russian state-controlled broadcaster widely criticized for disseminating propaganda, and its French version RT France, from Canadian airwaves. Ottawa had asked the telecommunications regulator late last month to trigger a process to block the 24-hour channel’s ability to broadcast in the country.
And last week, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau committed to renew and expand the G7 Rapid Response Mechanism, a little-known Canada-led initiative that aims to identify, block and respond to democratic threats like state-sponsored disinformation. The federal government also earmarked a separate $3 million for a different project that will help Ukrainians build “resilience” to misleading information.
Joly said that the country — and the world — has entered a “new era” since the invasion began, citing Canada’s ability to bring nations together as one of the country’s chief roles in the ongoing crisis.
The comment evoked a talking point that landed the minister in hot water this week after she told CTV’s Power Play that Canada was not a military power but rather a “middle-sized power” that was best at “convening” and “diplomacy.”
“Canada’s role within the G7 is really to be the best friend of U.S. and the best friend to Europeans. And bridging the UK with Europeans, making sure also that we’re in close contact with the U.S. and that we share information. So that’s what we’ve done,” she told Stein.
But Canada needs to bolster its diplomatic presence, Joly said, especially when it comes to opposing Russian President Vladimir Putin’s disinformation.
“This disinformation has had an impact in Russia. It has an impact in many countries,” the minister said. “Let’s be frank. We need to counter it. We need to re-engage. Canada’s diplomacy needs to be at its best.”
Raisa Patel is an Ottawa-based reporter covering federal politics for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @R_SPatel
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